FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: An Alfred Hitchcock Primer


An Alfred Hitchcock Primer

by Kristin Battestella

Fans of old school thrillers young or old can earn their suspense credentials with these early Alfred Hitchcock nail biters.

The Lady Vanishes Only one lovely train passenger has seen the titular dame, causing rail car mayhem for Margaret Lockwood (The Wicked Lady) and Michael Redgrave (Mourning Becomes Electra) in this 1938 mystery. Travel delays and assorted languages invoke the tourist hustle and bustle as our ensemble is humorously introduced – from the governess rambling about her past charges and country songs or dances to cranky Englishmen commandeering the phone just to ask the line from London for the cricket scores. All the rooms are let out in this hectic hotel save for the maid’s quarters, and she comes with the room, wink! The bellhop is trying not to look at the scandalous bare legs as our bachelorette orders caviar and champagne, but the men in bed together is gay in both senses of the word with jolly good innuendo. This quirky inn comforts the audience yet there are whispers of pretty American girls and the almighty dollar getting preferential treatment, newspaper sensationalism, and intensifying continental troubles. A hit on the head at the train station leads to a kaleidoscope of confusion, unfamiliar faces, magic tricks, and slight of hand illusion. Everyone’s interconnected – incognito affairs, musicians, a famous doctor, magicians, and foreign diplomats. Some genuinely don’t recall seeing the woman in question, but others have an ulterior motive for not wanting the train delayed, willful gaslighting compounded by lies, lawyers watching their own back, and that unreliable bump on the head. Tea in the dining car alone, suspicious wine glasses – complaints about non-English speakers, nationalism, political secrets, and conspiracies. Who’s really on who’s side? Train whistle harbingers pepper the constant hum of travel, matching the rail montages, impressive rear projection, and black and white photography. Despite the confined setting, the pace remains fittingly on the move with perilous comings and goings between cars. There are stoles and divine hats, too, but that giant monogram scarf looks more like a napkin stuck in her collar! Humorous bunging in the cargo with magician’s rabbits, trick boxes, false bottoms, and contortionists is good on its own, however, perhaps such fun should have happened earlier before the serious mystery escalates. There are some contrived leaps as well – it’s amazing how all the Englishmen can shoot to kill and do it so easily – and though not naming the enemy country is understandable thanks to political relevance then and now, the obligatory bad guys are just nondescript. Likewise, one can see why the sardonic comedy teams and shootouts were included, and Flightplan really steals from this right down to the writing on the foggy window. Fortunately, the ticking clock race to the border, wrong track turns, gunfire standoffs, and international chases roll on right up to the end. But seriously, what it is with Hitchcock and trains already?



Lifeboat – Journalist Tallulah Bankhead is stranded on the high seas with torpedoes, sunken ships, u-boats, and Nazis in this 1944 self-contained thriller nominated for Best Director, Story by John Steinbeck, and Black and White Cinematography. There’s no need to waste time on spectacle with the in media res sinking – flotsam and jetsam with everything from English playing cards to dead Germans heralds the nationalism and wartime grays to come amid damp passengers, dirty sailors, famous dames, mothers, babies, and injuries. Tallulah’s in furs, smoking a cigarette, and dictating what junk to bridge aboard, and despite the tiny boat space, multiple conversations happen fore and aft thanks to strategic intercutting between the immediate wounded and more self-absorbed survivors. Fog and windswept water sprays accent the superb rear projection, and the strategic filming captures everyone from all angles with foreground zooms and background silhouettes. Natural ocean sounds and the rocking of the ship, however, might make sensitive viewers seasick. There are numerous colloquialisms as well as accents and translations, but conversation is all we have – a stage-like talkative jam packed with insinuating layers, interrogations, and double meanings. Can you make your own law in open waters and toss the Nazi overboard? Everyone feels the need to establish who’s American, Christian, or had relatives in Czechoslovakia and France, and the black cook is surprised he’s included in all the decisions. It’s unfortunately expected that Canada Lee’s (Cry the Beloved Country) Joe is the least developed character, yet he’s also the most genuine person starboard. This is also a more diverse ensemble than often seen in today’s movies, and three women talk to each other about shell shock and lacking supplies but nobody knows the right prayers for a burial at sea. Cold, wet, sleepless individual vignettes allow the refreshingly flawed stranded to come clean, and at the time having a Nazi officer as a realistic character rather than an evil archetype was understandably controversial. Testy questions on who’s skipper, united sympathies, and diplomatic delegating drop the formalities, as after all “we’re all in the same boat.” However, information is not always forthcoming and no one knows the course to Bermuda – except Herr Kapitan. Can you trust his seamanship? A compass, typewriter, watches, diamond bracelets, brandy, and newspapers with Sir Alfred in the classifieds add tangibles and some humor alongside baseball talk, debate on the superior rowing capabilities of the Master Race, and other unexpected camaraderie, for “dying together is more personal than living together.” Repeated “Some of my best friends are…” quips also address differences as rambling on past regrets becomes veiled talk about shocking revelations and amputations. Lost material possessions give way to symbolic shoes, bare feet, shirtless men, and tattoos, but there’s time for intense poker, lipstick, and flirtation. Bermuda is the macguffin, and storms, hunger, delirium, suspicion, and men overboard get in the way of getting there. Rather than just special effects cool, wet and wild action heightens the internal boat suspense as beards grow and tables turn. They’re surrounded by undrinkable water, rain is precious, fishing bait is nonexistent, and sudden twists happen with nothing but a splash. Violent mutinies and shellfire are surprising to see in a forties movie, but Bankhead is a stunning, strong, sexy older woman able to be kissing or angry in the same scene – a multifaceted female role few and far between these days. Once stripped bare by the consequences of welcoming your enemy, do you accept your fate, continue to row, or laugh at the irony? Perhaps this warning against fatally lumping all together and the guilty lessons learned in such a no win situation can only be appreciated in retrospect, as this tale tries to see everything from both sides, remaining gripping from beginning to end with nothing but eight people in a boat in the middle of the ocean intensity. It makes one wonder why nowadays everything is so gosh darn bombastic.


SabotageBuzzing light bulbs go dark in this 1936 caper based on The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad – not to be confused with Hitchcock’s previous Secret Agent or later Saboteur. Whew! Crowds are both confused and giggling in this blackout, singing or arguing by candlelit and wanting their money back from the down picture show. Flashlights, the silhouetted skyline, shadow schemes, and askew camera angles add to the power tampering suspicion, and suspenseful notes follow our mysterious man in black as he returns home, washes his hands, and claims innocence – despite his neighbor’s claims to the contrary. He talks of money coming soon yet doesn’t want to draw attention to his cinema business, but the professional, public, and domestic are intertwined with families living above the bustling marketplace. Fine dresses, fedoras, and vintage cars add to the quaint, however no one is who they seem thanks to grocers with an angle, Scotland Yard whispering of trouble abroad, and shadowed men with their backs to the camera conversing over promised payments. The innocuous movies, aquarium, and pet shop host seemingly innocent ingredients used for making bombs, and onscreen days of the week lie in wait while the public is occupied by the picture show, hoodwinked by what’s in plain sight. Creepy packages, trick bird cages, and threatening “sleeping with the fishes” coded messages become a tongue in cheek nod to the nature of cinema and hidden observations as covers are blown and men scatter. Our wife is clueless abut her husband and oblivious to her family being used for information, creating an interesting dynamic for her between the handsome detective and a damn cold, cruel husband. Who are behind these plans and why? Despite several great sequences, convenient plot points leave too many unanswered questions. The busy start is rough around the edges, meandering for half the movie before becoming eerily provocative as a child delivers a fatal ticking package in the middle of the crowded market. We know the route and the time – delaying for street sales, demonstration detours, and interfering parades ups the suspense alongside traffic jams, stoplights, and montages featuring clock tower gears, dangerous flammable film, our innocuous brown papered package, and the puppy on the bus next to it! A clock on every street corner checks each five minutes passing amid town criers, newsboys, crescendos, and clues in the film canister that go for the big shocker while silent visuals bring the threats home to the dinner table. Although I don’t think today we’d have a cartoon singing “Who killed Cock Robin?” but that might just be me.


The 39 Steps – Like Maugham’s Ashenden stories, I wish there were more adaptations of the other Hannay books by John Buchan, not just numerous remakes stemming from this unfaithful but no less landmark 1935 picture with Robert Donat (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) joining our original icy blonde Carroll and all the Hitchcockian one can muster including the mistaken man, foreign intrigue, macguffin secrets, and budding romance. Cheeky dance halls host marriage jokes, brawls, chases, and gunshots with shadowed men in trench coats, pipes, and fedoras. Double decker buses, netted pillbox hats, stoles, and more period touches such as newspapers, lanterns, and milkmen contrast mysterious maps of Scotland, missing fingers, knives in the back, and a gal whose name depends on where she is and which country is the highest bidder. The mercenary espionage, air defense hush hush, and ticking clock is upfront in telling us what we need to know whilst also revealing a whole lot of eponymous nothing. Danger tops each scene thanks to suspicious phone booths, perilous bridges, and jealous husbands spotting those knowing glances across the dinner table during Grace. Police at the door and women both helpful or harmful compromise potentially rural calm – news travels fast and a spy must always be on the lookout. Whom do you trust when no one is who they seem? Lucky hymnal twists and false arrest turns escalate from one location to the next with ironic parades, impromptu speeches, cheering crowds, and charismatic escapes despite handcuffs, sheep, and romantic comedy tropes. Filming through doors, windows, and Art Deco lines accent the men in disguise, overheard rendezvous, and small hiking silhouettes against the pretty mountain peaks. Trains, airplanes, and rapid waters add speed to the pursuit. The superb cabin car photography and railroad scenery don’t need the in your face action awesome of today, for chitchatting folks reading the daily news is tense enough for the man who’s picture is beside the headlines. While some may find the look here rough around the edges or the plot points clichéd, many of our cinematic caper staples originate here. The full circle music, memories, and shootouts wink at the facade of it all, remaining impressive film making for the early sound era with great spy fun and adventure.


Movie Review: The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro has created a film masterpiece. And, with a stunning thirteen Academy Award nominations for The Shape of Water, I am not the only one who thinks so.

Set during the height of the Cold War, The Shape of Water follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works as a cleaner at a top-secret government facility. Elisa lives a quiet life of routine and resignation. When abrasive military man, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), arrives at the facility with an aquatic monster from South America, Elisa is captivated by the surprising humanity she witnesses in the creature. She develops a kinship with the amphibian man, who is limited in communication much as she is. When Cold War agendas threaten the creature, Elisa risks everything to save him. Set against a backdrop of ego, intrigue, and romance, The Shape of Water is far more than the typical monster movie.

It’s difficult to characterize The Shape of Water as any one genre—whether spy thriller or romantic drama—but, in many ways, that is the film’s strength. The plot is gripping, driving from one scene to the next, always with a new question in the viewer’s mind. There are no groundbreaking twists or sharp reveals. Things move forward as expected, but at every turn the viewer is left wondering what exactly will come next. At no point do we feel as if any character is safe from the events on the screen. Unexpectedly funny moments set scenes of horror in sharp relief. It all builds to a gripping conclusion that is every bit as harrowing as it is satisfying.

The film features a diverse set of characters, not just in demographics, but in personality, motivation, and abilities. They were all equally memorable, but most importantly, they were believable. What set the characters at odds were their different motivations and values. There were no contrived conflicts. At every crossroad, each character made the decision that was appropriate for them.

Elisa Esposito was a powerful force throughout the film. Elisa is no shrinking violet. Despite the disadvantages of being a single woman in the 1960’s and being unable to speak, she doesn’t back down from what she knows is right. I’m always enamored with characters who have limitations of speech, especially in horror movies. The role of a Scream Queen filled by a woman who literally cannot scream is such a self-aware implementation of the genre that it deserves praise all on its own. The ability to convey emotion without words is an incredible skill and Sally Hawkins delivers, conveying with longing looks more emotion than I felt in all of the Notebook.

As the main villain, Richard Strickland is deliciously easy to hate. A cruel and vain man, Strickland has an inflated sense of his own importance and capability. Portrayed as the ideal 1960’s husband—with the good job, suburban house, beautiful wife, and loving children—his deviance lurks deeper. He treats everyone as beneath him. At the same time, Strickland is a remarkably ordinary villain, the sort of man that everyone will recognize. Even without the backdrop of the supernatural, Strickland would be a terrifying presence. Through the film, it becomes increasingly clear that he will do whatever he wants to fulfil his own sense of overinflated importance, regardless of consequences to others. His predatory attitude toward Elisa is particularly unsettling. Watching his spiral into madness and obsession is both terrifying and satisfying.

Despite being central to The Shape of Water, the character of the Amphibian Man is surprisingly flat. What is there to say about someone that is majorly made up of a costume and CGI? He’s visually entrancing and has a few poignant moments, but his main role is to showcase the way other characters interact with him rather than to give much growth or power in his own right. As for whether you find him attractive, that’s a personal matter and between you and your own sexuality.

The Cold War setting of the movie was indispensable to the plot. The motivation to keep knowledge out of enemy hands, if they weren’t able to obtain it themselves, drives the characters to dark depths, making them willing to pay any price for their country, even if that price is their human soul. I can’t imagine any attempt to make this movie in a modern setting. The film needed the backdrop of the era’s black and white morality to properly set the stage for the movie’s central theme.

After all, what makes a monster is not circumstance or affiliation, but underlying motivations and character. Humanity extends to more than just humans. What is it that makes someone worthy of respect? Worthy of life? The Cold War, during which even other human beings were seen as lesser animals due to their political affiliations, creates a perfect environment in which to address the question of “what makes something human?”

While I would not consider The Shape of Water a horror movie in its own right—certainly not a ‘scary movie’—I think that there are elements that every horror addict will enjoy. It’s a love letter to old horror movies, taking tropes from the height of campiness and drawing them out in ways that only modern filmmaking can. It is a visual delight to watch and a gripping story to follow with plenty of nods to classic horror films. Especially in a world where it feels as if anything and everything has been remade, The Shape of Water stands apart as the only one to take an old concept and do it justice.

Book Review: The Ghost Club by William Meikle

The Ghost Club is a curious group of stories written by William Meikle, but in styles of classic authors. The author uses a fictional supper club in which all the famous writers of old have come to tell their tales as a thread to link each of these short stories together.

From Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry James to Margaret Oliphant and Mark Twain, these tales mimic the style of each author as if they were written by them. Meikle knows his literature and does a fantastic job imitating these greats. There is a lot to love in this book if you’re a sucker for spooky tales.

Some of my favorites were:

“Wee Davie Makes a Friend” in the style of Robert Louis Stevenson
A haunting tale about an ill boy where his father is unusually cruel about a little toy that seems to be making him feel better.

“In the House of the Dead” in the style of Bram Stoker
The tale of an interesting house with rooms where loved ones can see their dead. However the dead may also be able to steal the life from them.

“Farside” in the style of Herbert George Wells
In a very Time Machine-ish tale, gentlemen at a dinner party see the Northern Lights and soon after are introduced to a machine that can see a person’s aura. When one person’s aura is different than the rest and he dies, the inventor thinks his contraption can see—or may be the cause of—death.

“The Scrimshaw Set” in the style of Henry James
A gentleman buys a scrimshaw chess set that hypnotizes him into a Cthulhu-like obsession with chess.

“To the Manor Born” in the style of Margaret Oliphant
A maid hears mysterious singing and discovers the ghost of the master’s mistress and ghost child.

There are others that were interesting like “Born of Ether” in the style of Helena P. Blavatsky which uses the old fairy tale troupe of the shadow stealing a person’s life and “The Angry Ghost” in the style of Oscar Wilde which I found comical as a young boy is told not to believe in ghosts by the very granny who turns into a ghost.

Overall this is a delightful handful of ghost stories and seems to be one of those books you could enjoy reading aloud to each other.

Movie Review: Caller ID Entity

The messages are real.

Caller ID Entity is a modern horror think piece, capitalizing on a form of reality driven fear that has become increasingly popular lately. The movie derives from actual messages and testimonials of people claiming to have been the victims of mind-control experiments. While the messages themselves are harrowing, creator Eric Zimmerman transforms them into more than the crazed ravings of deranged individuals. The film asks: whom can you trust when you can’t trust yourself?

Caller ID Entity follows four young men—Dale (Denny Kirkwood), Miles (James Duval), Noah (Nathan Bexton), and Tristan (Triton B. King)—after they enroll in an unusual graduate study program run by Dr. Adam Whitney (Douchan Gersi). At the beginning, they all believe the goal of their research is to understand the causes of psychopathy, but, as the practicalities of their studies grow increasingly disturbing, the men realize that they’re into something far more sinister than they could have imagined. They are the latest victims in a mind-control experiment that challenges the very basis of humanity. The film follows them as they spiral deeper into madness and discover a network of survivors trying to expose the people who used them. They must separate truth from paranoia and find justice before time runs out.

Set in urban Los Angeles, Caller ID Entity capitalizes on the masses of humanity to reinforce the movie’s themes. People are portrayed as pawns—easily disposed and forgotten. Cellphones and cameras are everywhere in the city. When that technology can be used to hijack the mind, the threat is everywhere.

The cinematography reinforces this further. Caller ID Entity pulls from a variety of genres, using filming styles from documentaries, reality television, and experimental film. The result is a story that feels as if it takes place just on the fringe of reality. It walks the edge between life and fiction, between the belief that it could be true and the conviction that it is too crazy to be so.

Flashbacks, flash-forwards, and interviews break up the narrative, creating a looming sense of doom. We suspect throughout that there is no happy conclusion for the characters, yet we cannot turn away from their downfall. We are kept in suspense, hoping for any outcome other than the one we’ve glimpsed and wondering how anyone could fall so far.

The story has more than one basis in reality. A psychology experiment in the 1960’s found that people are willing to commit atrocities if pressured by an authority figure (interested? Look into the Milgram Experiments). This premise finds new life in Caller ID Entity, where the four young men find themselves involved in increasingly sinister experiments, spurred on by Dr. Whitney with encouragement that it is all for the betterment of mankind. While we may sit back and say we would never do anything so twisted, science says otherwise.

Caller ID Entity does not employ jump scares or extreme gore, but if you’re looking for a form of speculative science fiction or experimental horror that piggybacks off the everyday, this film is for you.

Terror Trax Review: The Creptter Children

As a metal fan, particularly the darker side of rock whether it be industrial, black metal, doom, gothic or others of that ilk, I’m always open to listening to new bands. Asleep With Your Devil is the new EP from The Creptter Children and I had no idea what to expect and knew nothing of the band. At the end of my first round of listening, I went straight back and listened to it again…and again.
This is an excellent collection. There is not a duff track amongst them and three have a definite ‘earworm’ quality, namely: “Watching You”, “Asleep With Your Devil”, and “Killer”.
The singer has a voice as good as Izzy Hale of Halestorm and Sharon del Arden of Within Temptation. Musicianship and production is excellent without losing the edge I like to hear in metal. This is wonderful and I am now going straight over to Twitter to start sharing their music.
*The Creptter Children will be featured on #159 of coming in August 2018!

Stephanie Ellis can be found at and on twitter @el_Stevie.

When Stephanie is not writing reviews, she is co-editor at The Infernal Clock ( a fledgling publishing venture and is also co-editor at The Horror Tree’s Trembling With Fear online magazine ( where they’re always open for flash submissions. She has also had short stories and a novella published in a variety of horror anthologies and magazines.

Book Review: Sycorax’s Daughters

Sycorax is an unseen sorceress and presence in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. She is present in the memories of men and though invisible; she is the force behind her son, Caliban.  The anthology, Sycorax’s Daughters, introduces us to women like her.  Women whose existence as storytellers is outside mainstream entertainment. Black women who weave stories of enchantment and horror.

And, they excel at it.

Sycorax’s Daughters is imaginative, lyrical, intelligent, beautiful, and terrifying. The editors, Kinitra Brooks, Ph.D., Linda D Addison, and Susana Morris Ph.D. chose powerful stories, poems, and novel excerpts. When you read them, you step into another world.

The book begins with a “Tree of the Forest Seven Bells Turns the World Round Midnight” by Sheree Renèe Thomas. In this tale, a man’s journey to meet his lover’s mother meets with chilling results. The story is a perfect introduction to the book. It gives a taste of what’s coming.

Within these pages, monsters receive fresh and startling retellings. Vampires aren’t tired, Transylvanian Princes. They are far more deadly and erotic. Mermaids are outcasts among their own kind, demons require vengeance, monsters prey upon males (and wear interesting footwear), paranormal detectives investigate, and ghosts seek to leech off the living.

My favorite story concerns a woman called Naomi and her spirit partner, Alexa. Though Alexa can possess Naomi, she is not a demon. Rather, she is an ally, one who aids Naomi in her chosen profession. Alexa also disapproves of Naomi’s choice in men and must take matters into her own hands. I hope the author will consider turning this tale into a book. The world she created is amazing.

The book ends with an afterword (in the form of a poem) by Linda D. Addison. It’s called “Sycorax’s Daughters Unveiled,” and it’s a fitting and beautiful piece.

I’ve read many anthologies. Most have included big name horror authors. None of these previous anthologies thrilled me as much as this one. I kept expecting to find a lump of coal among the gems.

I never found one. I don’t think you will either.

Book Review: Carnival of Chaos


What do you get when you add a missing proprietor, disgruntled carnival employees, suspicious police officers, a nerdy best friend, hulking goons, freakish sub-humans, and two bloodthirsty brothers? You get Carnival of Chaos, an unpredictable and enjoyable first entry in the Festival of the Flesh series.

The story begins with the disappearance of Chippy the Champ, proprietor of the Classic Circus Carnival. A menacing man called Mister E has taken control of the carnival and his vision doesn’t gel with the previous owner’s. Mister E wants to offer horror-themed entertainment and not all the employees agree. Enter, Loco, Blades, Stix, Angelique, Minx, Cleo, and Ben. These seven oppose Mister E and his usurpation of the carnival. They are joined by Jason, the surprising main character of the book, a man with a crush on the beautiful Angelique.

Mister E doesn’t deal well with resentment. He not only fires the eight workers, he orders his goons to eject them forcibly from the grounds. They’re not allowed severance pay or their belongings.

The antagonistic eight vow revenge and return to the carnival a few days later in order to enact it. When they enter Mister E’s trailer they find their belongings, a great deal of cash, and more than they bargained for.

Mister E is not what he seems, and the carnival is cover for something far more sinister. As the crew discovers more and others are drawn into the web, Mister E discovers how formidable his opponents are. His desire to add them to his Festival of Flesh increases tenfold.

Jim Goforth’s prose flows well and each of his three-dimensional characters are believable and well-drawn. Loco, the illustrated man, is dangerous and mysterious. He is the leader of the group and for good reason. Blades is the carnival knife man. His friendship with the clown, Stix, is enjoyable and genuine. Angelique is an acrobat and just as dangerous as the men. Minx is timid, a spoiled rich girl who trains elephants. Cleo, the tiger girl, is smart and brave. Ben, the circus strongman, is a big teddy bear…until you cross him. Jason is an every man and metal head. Jason’s motivations and emotions bring the story to life. He is along for the ride and he’s a resourceful and loyal friend. Mr. E and his brother, Hunter, are great villains. Both are perverse and twisted showmen. Every story must have a suitable adversary and they fit the bill.

A good writer forces you to care about the people he’s created and Goforth does just that. I found myself terrified, not only by the frightening and bloody situations but by the fact my favorite character might meet an undignified and sickening end. His villains are just as realistic as the heroes. These are people you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley or on dark carnival grounds.

Goforth’s building of suspense and foreshadowing of events is excellent. His twists are unexpected and many times, unpredictable. It’s refreshing to read about smart characters, people who need not do stupid things to advance the story. Case in point, one of my favorite parts involves Mister E’s plan to ambush the crew at a motel. He sends a cohort called Desmond to do the dirty work. Desmond discovers how dangerous the ex-performers are.

Carnival of Chaos is reminiscent of an 80’s horror film. It’s fun and frightening. I can’t wait for the next book in the series.